Mixed response in Middle East to West’s sanctions against Moscow

Reaction to Russian invasion contrasted with weak response to US/Israeli breaches of international law

Western-led condemnation of Russia's invasion of Ukraine and imposition of sanctions on Moscow has divided Middle Eastern governments into supporters, opponents, and fence-sitters, and stirred resentment among their citizens.

As the invasion unfolded, the Arab League set the stage for fence-sitting by urging respect for "the principles of international law", restraint and a "diplomatic solution" without mentioning Russia.

While empathising with Ukrainians, many Arabs compare massive political and financial pressure on Russia to cease fire and withdraw from Ukraine to the international community's refusal to take action against Israel for its occupation of Palestinian territory and multiple attacks on Lebanon and Syria, the 2003 US conquest of Iraq, and the US-backed Saudi Emirati war in Yemen.

Commenting in Middle East Monitor, Libyan academic and journalist Mustafa Fetouri wrote: "If Moscow is violating international law by its attack on Ukraine, it is following what Israel and [the] US have been doing for decades. From Palestine to Iraq, and all the way to Afghanistan, Israel and [the] US have a long history of aggression and disregard for all international laws."

Votes on the UN General Assembly resolution condemning Russia apparently reflected US pressure rather than genuine support from most regional governments.

Turkey, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Jordan, Egypt, Kuwait, Libya, Tunisia, Yemen and Bahrain voted in favour; Syria voted against; Algeria, Iraq, Iran and Sudan abstained; Morocco was absent.

Sudan did not reject the resolution although deputy head of the governing military council Mohammed Hamdan Daglo was in Moscow when the Russian offensive began. Russia has been accused by democracy activists of backing last year's army coup in Sudan.

On the vote, a Western analyst wrote: “Of course, as we all know, the General Assembly resolution has no legal force.”

This seems to have encouraged fence-sitters – especially the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia – to support the measure. The Emirates, which has lucrative oil and commercial connections with Russia, abstained on an earlier Security Council resolution.

Warmly welcomed

Traditional US allies, Saudi Arabia and the Emirates have recently reached out to Russia to balance their options, although this may not be a success. Journalist Tariq al-Humaid, writing in Saudi-owned daily Al-Sharq al-Awsat, argued Western policies are dictated by politicians whose “concern is [winning] elections” rather than the consequences of the war and said “the stark message is that no one should be trusted”.

Meanwhile, thousands of Middle Eastern residents who have scrambled to leave Ukraine have faced racism and prejudice at Ukrainian and neighbouring border posts as well as failure by home governments to repatriate them once they leave Ukraine.

Ukrainian refugees have been warmly welcomed by host countries and citizens as fellow Europeans and taken into private homes. Middle Easterners are given a cool reception and pressed to return to war-ravaged Syria and Libya and economically collapsed Iraq and Lebanon. On this issue, some European governments have adopted negative media lines.

Arab Reform Initiative director Nadim Houry told Reuters that some media coverage revealed "ignorance about refugees from other parts of the world who also have the same aspirations as Ukrainians".